If Marvel Movies Are Military Propaganda, They Are Very Bad At It
An argument that pops up ever so often is that Marvel movies, specifically those in the shared cinematic universe, are military propaganda. Folks say this because Marvel Studios does work with the Pentagon in order to get access to military-only equipment like fighter jets. Also, a number of MCU characters are in the military from Steve Rogers to Carol Danvers to James Rhodes. Since the studio works with Pentagon entertainment officials (a job that does exist), this leads some to make the leap that the Department of Defense is now effectively writing and directing the movie. This is, of course, not the case.
While Marvel movies that feature military support do face some demands, it’s a far cry from being propaganda. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a US Army veteran, serving both pre- and post-9/11. I am very able to recognize military propaganda, and if Marvel movies are supposed to be that, they’ve done a terrible job. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, there are some who say that the MCU movies have propagandistic themes in general. They argue that by ignoring a past filled with conflicts, lies, and some war crimes, they are guilty of selling the lie of the benevolent US military. Still, even folks who believe this would have to accept that some of these stories do address these things, albeit via fictional means.
In the MCU films, the military is presented one of two ways. Either they are openly antagonists, or they are so ineffective that they are essentially useless. In fact, from the premiere episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on, the military seems poised to again become the former.
What the Pentagon Can and Can’t Control In MCU Films
The last time this argument got any traction was during the release of Captain Marvel. The film was made with support from the Pentagon, and Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers was an Air Force pilot. One of the promos highlighted the collaboration with the Air Force. Yet, if Captain Marvel is propaganda, they don’t do a great job at making the Air Force seem that awesome. Not only do they highlight the reality of sexism in the USAF in the 1990s, but they cover up Carol’s death. If the Pentagon wanted to make a propaganda film, they likely wouldn’t allow the directors to even allude to sexism.
Until recently, Phil Strub was the Pentagon’s guy on movie sets. His role is to raise concerns the Pentagon has with things in the movie, usually related to realism. Since the USAF did prevent women pilots from flying combat missions in the 1990s, it got in the film. Of course, sometimes there are content complaints. But the film isn’t forced to acquiesce. If the storytellers don’t want to address the issues, the film just gets made without official military support.
Strub told a story to the USO about one disagreement he had on Iron Man. He objected to a general telling the character of James Rhodes that other soldiers would “kill themselves” for his career. Strub objected, probably because the veteran community was in the midst of an unaddressed suicide epidemic at the time. He and director Jon Favreau are having an argument about the line. Eventually, Favreau pitches “walk over hot coals” as a line, and the argument was over. “He was so surprised it was that easy,” Strub said. (The scene was ultimately cut from the film, anyway.) So, while the Pentagon can object to specific lines or inaccurate depictions, they do not have major creative control over anything. And, like they have in the past, if the Marvel directors don’t wish to acquiesce, they can walk away and make their movies anyway.
Marvel Movies Make for Poor Military Propaganda
Image via Marvel Studios
As I mentioned above, the Marvel films really only present the military as a nuisance or openly antagonists. In The Incredible Hulk the military not only are the villains, but the monster they create to capture the Hulk destroys Harlem, New York. Then, four years later in Avengers, the military (embodied by SHIELD and the World Council) try to nuke the entire city. (Interestingly, the Pentagon did not support Avengers, and the stated reason is because SHIELD wasn’t a US government agency but an international one.)
“But wait,” you may be saying, “surely Captain America: The First Avenger qualifies?” Objectively, this movie is the one which paints the military in the most positive light. Yet, in that film, the military not only wants to give the super-soldier serum to some cruel, sexist meathead, but they sideline the Cap they get. Team Cap eventually wins the day, but it’s made up of a private industrialist and a British spy. The most propagandistic message this films sends is: In World War II, the Nazis were the baddies.
The two sequels to this film, The Winter Soldier and Civil War, both highlight how the government and the military is not to be trusted with power. Sure, the villains are always given motivations and could, arguably, be separate from the institution. But any institution that allows HYDRA, Thunderbolt Ross, or Director Hayward into its ranks is not a great institution. They are representative of the power they serve, which is almost always stands in opposition to the heroes. Hell, even the heroes are shown to be irresponsible with their own power. Or, as is the case with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, that being a military “hero” comes with its own kind of trauma.
What do you think? Do you think the Marvel movies are military propaganda? Share your thoughts and reasons in the comments below.
Featured image via Marvel Studios
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.